281. Telegram From the Consulate in Hong Kong to the Department of State1

20984. Subject: Sino-Soviet Relations—Fading of Dispute Over Revisionism. Ref: (A) Beijing 8134 (Notal), (B) Moscow 25878 (Notal), Hong Kong 20481 (Notal).2

1. Summary: As China in the last two years has moved toward domestic policies that are revisionist according to its own earlier definition, its once acrimonious dispute with the Soviet Union over ideological revisionism has evaporated as an issue. Chinese attacks on the Soviet Union now focus exclusively on the Soviet military threat to China and Soviet global ambitions. With the removal of ideology as an issue, high level party-to-party discussions are probably no longer a necessary precondition for incremental improvement in state-to-state relations. End summary.

2. During a recent conversation, a foreign news editor for a PRC-controlled Hong Kong newspaper commented on the revisionism issue. He noted that Chinese attacks on Soviet revisionism dropped off starting in late 1977 after Yugoslav President Tito’s August 1977 State [Page 1012] visit to China and after China began to earnestly study Yugoslav and other Eastern European Communist experience. He said that given the current “practice is the sole criterion of truth” ideological line, it is impossible for China to continue to accuse the Soviet Union of revisionism. This source (a non-party member) also said that he had heard that the issue of whether or not the Soviet Union was revisionist had been the subject of an internal Chinese Communist Party discussion some months ago. This reference to an internal party discussion on Soviet revisionism parallels other reports (Reftel A). This source also noted that Politboro member Zhao Ziyang’s recent definition of socialism (Reftel C) was broad enough to include almost any social system based on public rather than private ownership.

3. The gradual decline and final demise of the Sino-Soviet dispute over revisionism can be traced in official Chinese state and party documents. The last concentrated Chinese ideological attack on Soviet domestic policies and leaders was Hua Guofeng’s August 1977 Political Report to the 11th Party Congress. The ideological line of Hua’s report, with its fulsome praise for Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and class struggle, has been repudiated by more recent state and party documents. In the process, attacks on the Soviet Union over purely ideological issues have steadily dropped off.

4. Hua’s February 1978 Work Report to the first session of the Fifth National People’s Congress (NPC), though more restrained than his August 1977 address, still attacked the Soviet leadership for betraying Marxism-Leninism. Hua blamed “the Soviet leading clique” for provoking the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute. He said that the debate over principle “must go on” although it should not impede normal state relations.

5. By contrast, Hua’s June 1979 Work Report to the Fifth NPC second session dropped all reference to Soviet betrayal of Marxism-Leninism. Hua stated that the deterioration of Sino-Soviet state relations was due to the Soviet military threat to China’s border. Hua said that relations could improve if the Soviet Union was willing to demonstrate sincerity through deeds, i.e. reducing border forces. He also attacked the Soviet Union for hegemonism, a code word for Soviet global ambition. On international issues we would think Hua’s various reports reflect the leadership consensus at a given time, rather than his purely personal views.

6. The last reference to Soviet revisionism in an authoritative Chinese party document appeared in the communiqué of the December 1978 Third Party Plenum. The communiqué cast doubts on Mao’s revolutionary guidance and the Cultural Revolution—the first time an official party document had done so. However, without mentioning Chinese domestic factors, the Plenum communiqué still blamed the [Page 1013] Cultural Revolution on Soviet revisionism. (“It was mainly because the Soviet Union turned revisionist that Comrade Mao Zedong took the opposition to and prevention of revisionism as his point of departure and started this great (Cultural) Revolution.”)

7. In the most recent authoritative Chinese party document, Vice Chairman Ye Jianying’s September 29, 1979, PRC Thirtieth Anniversary address, the concept of “revisionism” was placed under a dark cloud. Without mentioning the Soviet Union, Ye noted that opposition to revisionism was one of the motivating ideas behind Mao’s call for the Cultural Revolution. However, Ye claimed that at the start of the Cultural Revolution (by implication Mao himself) had no clear understanding of what revisionism was. Ye did not offer his own explanation. A very short section in Ye’s speech on foreign affairs mentioned Soviet global ambitions and hegemony.

8. Over the last year-and-a-half several Chinese theoretical articles have essayed a distinction between “revisionism” and “revision”. This distinction appeared for the first time in a major article in a Jiefang Junbao special commentator article reprinted in People’s Daily on June 24, 1978. The article is one of the earliest and most important pieces in Deng Xiaoping’s “practice is the sole criterion of truth” campaign. The article argues that “the development of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought undoubtedly includes the revision of outmoded theories and this cannot be described as revisionism.”

9. More recently, on October 20, 1979, a Guangming Ribao wrap-up on the philosophy symposium held during a series of Academy of Social Science symposia also touched on the issue of “revision.” According to the Guangming Ribao story, philosophy symposium participants “believed that those who uphold the scientific nature of Marxism should have the courage to revise the outmoded things in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought, a ‘revision’ based on the implicit definition of Marxism.” (“Revision” as appears in the original Chinese text.)

10. Comment: with the removal of ideology as a contentious bilateral issue, high level party-to-party discussions are probably no longer a necessary precondition for incremental improvement in state-to-state relations. In this connection, we tend to believe the assertion (Reftel B) that current talks do not involve ideological questions. Ongoing discussions on the Chinese side are led by Wang Youping, a Vice Foreign Minister, who is not even a Central Committee member. Without Central Committee standing he would have no authority to discuss ideological questions.

11. More broadly, China is going through a period of ideological soul-searching that makes sharp conflict with other Communist Parties over ideology unlikely. One American scholar of Soviet affairs has lik[Page 1014]ened the Chinese search for a new ideological consensus to similar events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The same scholar concluded that “despite China’s intense animosity toward the USSR, current ideological trends in China may not be at all that far apart from the growing ideological pragmatism in the Soviet Union.” In historical perspective, China’s return to a pragmatic path and the evolution of Eurocommunism may signify the end of ideology as a crucial arena for debate in what was once called the international Communist movement.

12. Intellectual contacts in Hong Kong have been telling us for some months that there is growing consensus within the party and among Chinese intellectuals for improved state-to-state relations with the Soviet Union. Reading between the lines of an article in the July 1979 Red Flag, one source saw a suggestion China might resume large-scale import from the Soviet Union of technology and equipment which, though not up to world standards, would still be useful given China’s backward economy and unemployment problem. Of course, China would expect to get these at a low price.

13. On border questions, it is probably significant that China dropped its public demand for “negotiations on resolving the border question” between the February 1978 and the June 1979 NPC sessions. The demand was in Hua’s Work Report to the February 1978 Fifth NPC first session but not in a similar passage in his June 1979 report to the Fifth NPC second session. Also of possible significance is a recent suggestion that Chinese scholars should be allowed to freely publish articles on border questions without official approval. The suggestion was made during the history symposium of the Academy of Social Sciences symposia series, according to Guangming Ribao on October 27.

  1. Source: Department of State, American Embassy Beijing, 1979 Central Subject Files: Lot 82 F 82, Pol 2 USSR. Confidential. Repeated to Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Belgrade, Bucharest, AIT Taipei, and CINCPAC in Honolulu.
  2. Telegram 8134 from Beijing, November 14, examined reports that China was reconsidering its verdict on Soviet revisionism; telegram 25878 from Moscow, November 16, reported on Sino-Soviet negotiations; telegram 20481 from Hong Kong, November 16, reported on a speech by Chinese Politburo member Zhao Ziyang on China’s political and economic policy. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790534–0235; D790532–0748; and D790532–0159)